We often think about seminary as the place where men go "to learn how to be priests." But, it is in the living out of priesthood that we really learn how to be priests. It is in being a priest that one is conformed more and more to the priestly heart of Christ. In the Rite of Ordination, the bishop places the chalice and paten into the hands of the newly ordained priest and he says, "Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord's Cross." It is through the daily offering of the eternal sacrifice of Christ, that the priest is drawn more and more intimately into the victimhood of Christ. This does not happen automatically. It requires the priest to unite himself to the sacrifice. This is why the words spoken take on the form of an instruction or an admonition: "Model your life on the mystery of the Lord's Cross."
In every Mass, the priest offers to the Father in an unbloody manner the sacrifice that took place on Calvary. All that was in Christ's heart, all that Christ endured in that sacrifice, is offered in every Mass. On the day of his ordination, the priest was told to "imitate the mystery you celebrate." On the day of ordination, few of us probably had any idea what this meant! Well, we probably knew what it meant theoretically, but it is in the daily living out of this command that it truly is made known to us. Nearness to the Sacred Mysteries is nearness to the Cross.
St. Paul instructed Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God" (2Tim 1:8). This instruction is not moralism. Instead, we see a fraternal and fatherly tenderness. St. Paul writes to Timothy in order to strengthen him in his pastoral ministry. In doing so, St. Paul provides to priests and bishops a model for priestly fraternity. St. Paul teaches from his own experience of suffering for the sake of the Gospel and he speaks with tenderness for Timothy.
Among the beautiful gifts that God gives to a priest when he is ordained is the fraternity of the presbyterate. The individual priest learns from their example, benefits from their experience, and is encouraged by their fraternal charity. The more a priest conforms his life to the mysteries he celebrates, the more he becomes a truer brother to his fellow priests. I've been privileged in my life to be surrounded by priests who imitate what they celebrate. This willingness on their part to be conformed to the Sacrifice of Calvary gives them hearts that are filled with the tenderness of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
On the day of my ordination, I knew that those things that were spoken to me were serious business. These things have to do with the salvation of souls--mine included! In true priestly friendship, we help each other to take seriously our call to be stewards of the mysteries of God. In priestly friendship, we help each other to be shepherds after the heart of Christ. Priestly fraternity is of no use unless it helps the individual priest to become more like Christ, the one, true priest. True priestly friendship helps the priest to grow in pastoral charity; a charity that offers everything for the sake of the flock.
This week, I found myself continuously moved by the example of various priests that I know. Some are much older than I am. Some are my age or younger. In various ways, perhaps unknown to them, their life shows forth the tenderness of a shepherd's heart; a tenderness that comes from conformity to the mysteries that they celebrate. Their priestly example and fraternity renews in me a desire to follow Christ and to imitate him.